OCEAN CITY — With the arrival of another Memorial Day, residents and visitors are reminded once again of the significance of the holiday, and perhaps no better example of the recognition of the contributions and sacrifices of veterans is based in Ocean City with the Saltwater Soldiers organization.
Saltwater Soldiers, founded and operated by Michael Branson, is a non-profit organization based in Ocean City that provides opportunities for wounded or returning veterans to enjoy big game fishing off the resort’s coast. A few years back, Branson recognized the need for returning veterans, some wounded, to assimilate back into society and started with a single sportfishing boat to provide opportunities to rehabilitate and relax and to enjoy the therapy a day on the open ocean provides.
“The way this thing started, my grandfather was a veteran of World War II and Korea and my father was in the 82nd Airborne,” said Branson. “I have a cousin who has done two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I started working on this when I heard some of their stories about what they did and saw overseas and what they are faced with when they come home.”
Saltwater Soldiers provides financial aid to service men and women for projects like making their homes handicap-accessible and ADA compliant. However, one of the organization’s strongest contributions is much-needed financial aid for counseling services for veterans when they return.
“Our real focus is providing funding for counseling services outside the military or the Veterans Administration,” he said. “Many of these guys face a lot of issues when they get back. They’ve seen things they just can’t get out of their minds. Many of them won’t go through the military to deal with these issues because they’re afraid it will go into their record of keep them from moving up. We provide financial assistance to allow them to find a private counselor they’re comfortable with and help them pay for it.”
The Saltwater Soldiers boat is based in Ocean City during the summer season and makes numerous regular day trips throughout the summer. Apart from the financial assistance provided by the program is the opportunity for wounded veterans and their families to get away from their troubles for at least one day.
“That’s what Saltwater Soldiers is for,” he said. “It builds or rebuilds self-esteem and allows them to enjoy life regardless of their injuries. We’ll see them grinning from ear to ear because they’re doing things they never thought they’d be able to do again.”
Branson said this week the program has been successful in allowing wounded veterans, or those who are returning from the front lines mentally and emotionally damages but otherwise sound physically, an opportunity to decompress somewhat with a day on the ocean.
“Saltwater Soldiers takes wounded or returning veterans fishing as a reward for their service and sacrifice, but more importantly for rehabilitation and therapy,” he said. “Everything is top notch and they get to enjoy a great day of fishing offshore with their families with all the best amenities. When we enter tournaments, they get the added thrill that at the other end of the line could be a million dollar fish.”
Not if, but when that happens, almost all of the winnings will go right back into the Saltwater Soldiers program to create more opportunities for wounded veterans.
“We have an agreement within the organization that everything goes back into the charity,” said Branson. “The captains and mates will get their shares, and we’ll take care of the entry fees and the fuel and bait, for example, but everything above that goes right back into the charity. Eventually, we’ll win one of these tournaments. Imagine having a wounded veteran standing up at the scale with a million dollar fish.”
Saltwater Soldiers has entered the White Marlin Open in Ocean City the last two years with a relatively quiet presence, but the organization is expanding this year to include, in order, the Big Rock in North Carolina, the Virginia Beach Tuna Tournament, the Ocean City Tuna Tournament, the White Marlin Open, Pirate’s Cove, the Poor Girls’ Open and Mid-Atlantic 500,000.
During each event, a film crew will be on hand to capture the fishing action, but more importantly, to interview the soldiers about their stories in what could be a pilot for a national television show. Already, NBC Sports has reached out to Branson with a letter of intent to create a pilot. In addition, a Discovery Channel producer and program director has instructed Branson not to make any decisions without talking to him first. Branson said a Discovery Channel program about the Saltwater Soldiers could be akin to the popular “Deadliest Catch” program.
Branson is still looking for a summer home for the Saltwater Soldiers boat. He said this week the vessel will be based out of Ocean City and make day trips throughout the summer, while heading out to the various tournaments in the region. He also envisions an all-veteran angler tournament in Ocean City down the road and is looking for a possible home for the event.
Branson started Saltwater Soldiers largely with his own funding. He bought the organization’s one and only boat and outfitted it for wounded soldiers with his own money, although he has recently been soliciting donations and in-kind services in hopes of expanding the program. He said this week he wanted to get back to the “roots” of non-profits.
“So many of these organizations have gotten so top heavy with administrative salaries that they’ve lost sight of what they’re doing it all for in the first place,” he said. “Just about every penny we raise goes right back into the program. We could always use more support, but only if they’re in it for the right reasons.”
Branson has been able to assemble a core group of volunteers and organizations to help offset some of the costs of providing the services. Much of the funding for fuel and bait and paying captains and mates is funded by Branson himself, but he has also surrounded himself with several companies and individuals who are making in-kind contributions.
For example, Alan Wardle is a Bahamian who makes custom hand-made lures he donates to Saltwater Soldiers. Wardle started his company, Bahama Lures, in the U.S. and donates his custom creations to the Saltwater Soldiers program. He also often makes the trip to Ocean City to fish with the veterans on regular day trips or tournaments, including the White Marlin Open.
“Here’s a guy who is living the American dream with the company he established in this country and he understands the sacrifices these men and women have made to make that possible,” said Branson. “He gets it. Not only does he donate these insane lures, but he donates his time and gets to know the guys, acting as an extra mate and educating them on fishing.”
Another partner is a Serbian national who served in the Serbian Special Forces and has started a company that creates electronic reels. Zsolt Szekeley, who founded Dolphin Electreels in Florida, reconfigures electric reels fitted for left- or right-handed veterans who may have lost an arm or lost the use of an arm during their service.
“He served in his country’s Special Forces and he understands what some of these guys have been through,” Branson said. “He has donated some special reels to help our guys enjoy the thrill of catching a big game fish. He understands freedom and he wants to help.”
Another major partner has been the Army National Guard, which signed on as sponsor recently after Branson made a pitch to some high-ranking officers. The Saltwater Soldiers boat is in the process of being wrapped with Army National Guard logos and information, which Branson hopes will generate interest for both his organization and the guard.
The Army National Guard will also accompany the Saltwater Soldiers when they participate in the major tournaments on the summer schedule.